It’s a challenge for any musician to answer the question, “So, what’s your music like?”
In order for readers to get curious enough about your music to stop surfing, click play, and actually listen, they need an incentive. That’s where your bio comes in and the crucial element it needs to include is a description of your music. Your readers want—and deserve—an understandable, compelling sketch of what your music actually sounds like, not a string of adjectives and clichés.
It’s easy to pretend we’re describing our music when in fact we’re simply relying on broad labels like post-modern, avant-garde, neo-romantic, or atonal. These terms only serve to make you and your music sound generic and institutional—and to alienate readers unfamiliar with the lingo.
It’s also easy to fall into analytical terms: telling us that you employ extended harmonic language and polyrhythms. But again, this won’t help civilians connect on a human level and won’t help us imagine the experience of hearing your music.
And if you simply write, “X is a composer who has written for solo voice, string quartet, and chamber winds,” your reader still doesn’t have a clue about what your music sounds like.
The good news is that there are multiple ways to describe your music and there are tools to make writing easier. Here are three example descriptions. I find these distinctive and compelling: they make me want to click “play” and listen. What I also like in these is that each has something surprising that made me sit up and take notice. See what you think:
Annie Gosfield, whom the BBC called “A one woman Hadron collider” lives in New York City and works on the boundaries between notated and improvised music, electronic and acoustic sounds, refined timbres and noise. She composes for others and performs with her own group, taking her music on a path through festivals, factories, clubs, art spaces, and concert halls. Dubbed “A star of the Downtown scene” by The New Yorker magazine, her music is often inspired by the inherent beauty of found sounds, such as machines, destroyed pianos, warped 78 rpm records and detuned radios.
This made me look up Hadron collider: it’s a particle accelerator. I thought, wow! The other images and phrases that got me curious to click play were the boundaries between “refined sound and noise” and performing in “festivals, factories, clubs, art spaces, and concert halls.” I loved that concert halls was last. But the end especially piqued my curiosity—that her influences include “the inherent beauty of found sounds, such as machines, destroyed pianos, warped 78 rpm records and detuned radios.”
Meredith Monk is a composer, singer, director/choreographer and creator of new opera, music-theater works, films and installations. Recognized as one of the most unique and influential artists of our time, she is a pioneer in what is now called “extended vocal technique” and “interdisciplinary performance.” Monk creates works that thrive at the intersection of music and movement, image and object, light and sound, discovering and weaving together new modes of perception. Her groundbreaking exploration of the voice as an instrument, as an eloquent language in and of itself, expands the boundaries of musical composition, creating landscapes of sound that unearth feelings, energies, and memories for which there are no words.
Here we get the range of Meredith’s work, a sense of her position in the field, and then a real description of what her music involves and what the experience is like—described in a way that both musicians and non-musicians should find accurate and compelling. Note: she employs the much over-used word “unique” but in this context, and knowing her work, it’s fine.
Identity has always been at the center of Gabriela Lena Frank‘s music. Born in Berkeley, California, to a mother of mixed Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent, Frank explores her multicultural heritage most ardently through her compositions. Inspired by the works of Bela Bartók and Alberto Ginastera, Frank is something of a musical anthropologist. She has travelled extensively throughout South America and her pieces reflect and refract her studies of Latin-American folklore, incorporating poetry, mythology, and native musical styles into a western classical framework that is uniquely her own. She writes challenging idiomatic parts for solo instrumentalists, vocalists, chamber ensembles, and orchestras.
Here the information about Gabriela’s parents and background are absolutely relevant because she tells us immediately what is at the heart of all her music: identity. She’s “something of a musical anthropologist” and explains her major influences and how these have played out in her work. I get a vivid sense of her music and, again, am compelled to listen.
Questions to help you generate a more concrete and evocative description of your music. Try one or more of these and see what your responses generate.
How have listeners described your music? What have people said after your performances or about your recordings? Not the generic “it was amazing” but the more curious comments about what your music got them thinking or seeing. Not what other composers or teachers have said, but audience members and performers. These may give you more immediate clues and language for how civilians experience your music.
What are you fascinated by or obsessed with? Are there issues, ideas, types of soundscapes, or areas of inquiry you explore in your music? Give readers a sense of your focus.
What would you say has been at the core of your work? What you are aiming to achieve? Do you have a sense of mission?
How would you describe your music to a favorite aunt, a non-musician? Hint: you wouldn’t talk down to her and you wouldn’t use technical jargon. And of course she might especially appreciate knowing what fascinates you in your work.
If describing your work as a whole is too daunting, instead focus on a particular project and describe its notable features: instrumentation, form, or the occasion or ensemble for which it was written. A particular project can serve as an entry point for a reader to connect with your music.
What projects are you working on? Give us a reason to sign up for your newsletter and to be looking forward to (and contributing to) your next projects.
For additional help, consider connecting and working with a coach, mentor, publicist, or journalist. You can also ask fans and friends to send you a one-sentence description of any of the works you have online. You may get surprisingly evocative and helpful results.
Avoid the Clichés
You are a distinct individual and your music is a reflection of your singular perspective. Therefore your bio should not contain the same tired words and stale phrases found in countless other musicians’ bios.
The use of clichés starts with an innocent desire to communicate something authentic. But in reaching for words to fit, we end up grabbing the first and easiest thing that comes to mind. You can do better. Dig deeper.
To Be Avoided
(feel free to add more clichés to the list as needed #clichésRus)…
Passionate / passion
Unique (who isn’t?)
Of her/his generation
Quickly establishing herself/himself as a sought-after . . .
Has studied under (sounds subservient: use “with”)
Under the tutelage of (too arcane)
Committed or dedicated to, or champion of . . . the music of our time
One of the most . . .
The next . . .
Keep in mind that at one point these words or phrases weren’t stale and over-used—they had meaning and could be used effectively. But once everyone else started using them, they became generic hype, and now merely sound like “bio speak.”
Don’t follow the herd: the language you want should be fresh and memorable to reflect what is specific to you.
To be clear, effective bios that pique interest, avoid clichés, and make you want to click “play” are not easy to find. In the course of writing this article series I searched for hours to find good examples.
Instead of being discouraged, this has got me thinking: what if musicians rallied around this challenge and improved their bios—just think of all the new listeners and fans we might attract!
Want the rest? Stay tuned for the final installment of Keys to Writing a Better Bio.